Connotation vs. Denotation: Definitions, Examples, and the Difference

From The Write Practice:

If you’ve ever called a friend or partner “cheap” instead of “frugal” and found yourself paying the bill, you may have made a critical error noting the difference between connotation vs. denotation.

What’s the difference between connotation vs. denotation? And more importantly, how can you use each one to your advantage as a writer?

. . . .

So the writer’s problem then becomes how to choose the right word to get your ideas across. One way to work toward more precision in language is to understand the difference between a word’s literal definition and the hidden emotional meanings that attach themselves to the word. Let’s break down connotation vs. denotation.

Denotation Definition

Denotation comes from the word “denote” which means to “to mark out plainly” or “to represent or signify.” When the word denotation is applied to the definition of any specific word, it means the literal meaning of a word, the specific, primary meaning of a word.

In short, the denotation of a word is its dictionary definition.

Denotation Examples

Let’s look at some examples of denotation. The words beautifulhandsomeattractive, and pretty essentially all mean the same thing: good-looking or aesthetically pleasing to the senses (especially visual).

That is the dictionary definition or denotative meaning. Straightforward, right?

Connotation Definition

Connotation is the idea or feeling a word carries, in addition to its literal meaning. Connotation is heavily dependent on a shared understanding of a hidden or implied meaning, so connotation can change from region to culture to language.

Connotation Examples

Let’s look at some examples of connotation to help you become more adept at using language in writing.

Types of connotation

There are three types of connotation, and luckily their names denote their actual meaning. (Handy, right?)

Positive Connotation

Let’s return to the example in our introduction. The word “frugal” means economical with money, but it has a strongly positive connotation. When you can someone frugal, the hidden meaning is that they are wise and savvy with money. It’s a good thing, a positive attribute.

Negative Connotation

In contrast, if someone is called “cheap,” the denotative meaning might be economical, too. But the connotation is negative—the feeling associated with “cheap” is that someone is miserly or tries to save money in negative ways.

Neutral Connotation

The last type of connotation is neutral—when a word has no positive or negative implied meanings. The word “economical” is pretty neutral unless the context changes. And context is always important when determining the connotative meaning of words.

Link to the rest at The Write Practice

1 thought on “Connotation vs. Denotation: Definitions, Examples, and the Difference”

  1. Yep, and this is where “wordsmithing” comes into play, and is useful as a storytelling technique.

    For instance, yes, there is a group of people who think of the expression of ideas they don’t like as “assault.” And will characterize disagreements as “assault.” The thing is, at least in Michigan, and wherever Gloria Allred lives — there’s a “Simpsons” episode involved here — the legal definition of assault is focused on words. Threats. Battery is when you actually touch someone, and I think technically just patting someone’s shoulder (if they don’t want you to touch them) could count as battery. In high school I took a Youth & Law elective, and our teacher was a lawyer. Us kids thought assault = kicking and punching. And battery = you went Chuck Norris and sent someone to the hospital. The OJ trial was happening at the same time, and our teacher used the trial as a learning aid. Fun!

    Gloria Allred ties into this because there’s a Simpson’s episode where they parody VH1’s “Behind the Music.” During a family argument, a cartoon version of Allred pops up and accuses one of the Simpsons of assaulting the other. The moment is played for laughs, with the subtext that Allred is rabidly insane because the Simpsons weren’t hitting each other. I think the lower third on the screen calls her “shrill.” To ordinary people she would be, because the connotation of “assault” is violent physical contact. In ordinary conversation, characterizing shouting at someone as violence just makes you look unhinged, and deceitful. But I saw that moment differently because I knew that the legal denotation of “assault” means Allred’s character is not actually crazy.

    To me that episode is a great example of how a wild divergence in a word’s denotation and connotation can be used in shading perceptions. In a narrative … or in propaganda. Make use of that power! Preferably for a good and not evil, of course 🙂

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